When Times Stretches Thin

I am lucky enough, this semester, to be teaching on the grounds of Roscoe Village, a restored canal town in central Ohio. COTC, the college for whom I teach, has a history of repurposing spaces into effective, imaginative college campuses. I teach in what was once an inn; the lobbies have chairs you can sink into and, on brisk Ohio days, fires snapping on broad hearths. The classrooms are bright and friendly.

The students are bright and friendly, too, and it occurred to me that, since we are meeting in the midst of a historic space, we ought to work that into our writing. So this semester, I connected with the wonderful folks at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum. It’s right next door to the COTC building, and one day my students and I walked over for a tour led by Reba Kocher, who manages the collections at the museum.

Reba took the students on an in-depth tour of the exhibits, and then she gave them a wonderful opportunity to sit and examine real artifacts up close and personal. She showed them how to handle aged items; she let the students tour the archives and see that not all museum treasures are always on view.

I tasked the students with writing a reflection paper. They could reflect on an artifact; they could reflect on the visit. They could reflect on museums themselves, and the richness and values such institutions bring to our society.

Sometimes I task myself with doing the same assignment as the students. So I wrote my own reflection on our visit, and I wove in the fact that I had worked in Roscoe many years ago as a historical interpreter.

Then I found out that the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum hosts an essay-writing contest called the Mary Harris Prize (http://jhmuseum.org/index.php/learn/adult-programs/353-mary-harris). I decided to submit my essay, even though it was more personal reflection than historic study.  I am thrilled and honored to say that it was selected as the winner. Jennifer Bush, the Museum’s director, has given me permission to share the essay here.


We are exploring, my students and I, in a room filled with Native American artifacts. They pore over cases of arrow heads, fingers tracing the glass; they are arrested by a crinkly roll of seal intestines, and by a doll made from that same odd material. They stop to examine the miniature canoe carefully created, 100 years ago maybe, by a young boy who wanted something to play with on the creeks and rivers of Ohio. That boy was learning, too, a craft he’d need to master as a man.

I was excited by the opportunity to bring my Comp I class to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, on a visit that would build a platform for their reflection papers. I was worried, too. I thought they might feel bored or disengaged.

But now they cram into a recreated cave; they pound a deep-voiced drum. In the Farm Bureau exhibit, they light up with recognition. They talk about their own 4-H experiences.

“I love museums,” one sighs, and classmates echo agreement.

The students follow our tour guide, Reba Kocher, eagerly. Reba leads them downstairs to a room where, gathered around tables in groups of four or five, they learn to handle artifacts with respect and care and, sometimes, with gloves. She tells them the story of the museum; she brings out a fragile mummified foot for them to look at.

She takes them, in small groups, into the museum’s archives, and she lets them see the stored treasures not always on view.

They examine snuff bottles and knife holders, a samurai’s katana, beautifully woven baskets, and tin advertising trays. They talk in low murmurs, and they ask smart, engaged questions.


Time’s membrane is usually sturdy and unrelenting, but there are places and there are times when it stretches so thin, it’s less than transparent. It’s invisible.

In those moments, I can reach right through and touch the past.

Now I watch my students make that reach; their faces are lit, and they are present, for this microcosm, in many different eras. Reba has created this time-stretching interlude for them; she has thoughtfully constructed their tour and their experiences in this room, examining, up close and personal, vestiges of lives long past.

And the place helps, too. I have always thought that there are special places where the current of time hums close to the surface.

Roscoe Village, home to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum and COTC’s Coshocton campus, is one of those places.


I discovered Roscoe in 2003 when I was looking for work. We had moved, after my husband graduated at age 49 from an Ohio law school, to Mount Vernon, and I began to look for higher ed jobs. I updated my resume and agonized over my cover letters, and I sent out packet after packet to four-year schools and community colleges.

The silence from those colleges, as Mark settled into his first job as an attorney and our son learned to navigate a new school, was profound.

So, I went online and started looking at other working possibilities, and I discovered Roscoe Village, a restored canal town less than 50 miles away. The Village was accepting applications for historical re-enactors. I couldn’t think of a job that sounded more like fun.

I sent off my resume; I got a call. Before long, I had a long, flowered dress and a crisp, lace-trimmed collar, a thick, rectangular name tag, and a bonnet. I went searching for authentic looking shoes that would also be comfortable. And I began learning, from people like Dick Hoover, how a printer loaded and inked metal letters to run a broadside or a newspaper, how a cooper plied his froe, and what exactly it took, in an 1800’s frontier town, to put together a family dinner.

I learned, too, the history of the place,–learned, for instance, about Mary Harris and about the White Woman’s Rock; those tales are often jumbled together in tumbled memory but were not, at all, the same story. I learned about the canal, a kind of crazy visionary enterprise that opened up the frontier and made regular people’s westward moves possible. I learned about the Montgomery’s, industrialist Edward and his wife, Frances, who began, in the early 1960’s, to ensure that Roscoe would showcase the area’s canal days history (“History”).

Because of the canal, Eliza Johnson, in the late 1800’s, had real wallpaper, ordered from Europe, on the walls of her Roscoe Village parlor.

Because of the canal, Ohio farmers could ship their produce to eastern states and receive, on the return trip, manufactured essentials that made frontier life simmer and hum.

On Sundays, on the ground level of the doctor’s house, I often spun a trussed chicken over a hearth fire and cooked cornbread in a cast iron Dutch oven. Upstairs, Betty Lou might be taking visitors through the common rooms, the dining room with its glass fly catcher and fancy dishes, the parlor with its stiff-looking company chairs. Then the guests went outside and trooped down the cellar stairs to see the part of the house where the never-ending work of cooking was once done.

One early Sunday, we arrived to open up the doctor’s house. Betty Lou unlocked the front door and hurried off to put her purse in the staff room. I pulled back the bolt and opened the door to the inside stairs that would take me to the ground floor. I looked down the stairs, and as clear as I see, now, the keyboard that I type on, I saw a woman standing next to the cooking table.

Her head and shoulders were obscured by the hand-hewn wooden beam that girdered the ceiling. Her long skirt was a shiny, silky material, copper-colored with tiny stripes of white. She wore soft white leather boots that buttoned up the sides.

She was dressed for visiting, not for cooking, and I wondered why she was in the kitchen. And she was so patently from another time that I wondered why she was in the kitchen NOW.

I was not frightened, but I had a strong sense that I was intruding. I closed the cellar door, and I shook my head briskly. Betty Lou bustled back out and gave me a look.

I opened the door again and of course, no one was there. I went on down to light the fire.

Today, I can close my eyes and bring back the precise image of that skirt, the clearly etched lines of those shoes. I have no idea if, still groggy on a Sunday morning, I just had an extraordinarily lucid waking dream, or if, perhaps, for that tiny moment in time, the membrane really had peeled fully back.


I met the most amazing people working at Roscoe. Betty Lou and Dick were among many mentors who’d retired from one career to find joy in working at the restored canal town. They were skilled and savvy; they loved and they lived the history of the place. They were generous in sharing their knowledge and skills with a newcomer.

The rest of my new worker cohort were, for the most part, college students. Those wonderful young people threw themselves into their jobs, showing up early, staying late, absorbing the lore, learning the crafts. They deftly plied spindles on the mammoth loom, hammered searing hot metal on the blacksmith’s anvil, and wielded the froe in the cooper’s shop. The history, I saw, was real for them, too.

I worked a lot in the doctor’s house. I also spent many days as the teacher in the Roscoe schoolhouse, having my students practice their printing on slates, quizzing them on their arithmetic tables, and showing them the lidded tin bucket they’d bring their tasty lard sandwiches in for lunch. If there were lefties in the group, I’d threaten to tie those left hands to the desktop, forcing them to learn to write with their right hand—the good one. Before the lesson went on so long as to get boring, a warning bell would toll, and we’d rush out the door and across the street to the water pump. There, we’d fill and pass canvas buckets, hurrying to help extinguish an imaginary fire.

It was a treat to see children in their modern clothes, some with lights that blinked on and off in the soles of their gym shoes when they ran to grab their buckets, playing the parts of children in the 1880’s.

“Don’t forget your homework!” I would holler, and, like students set free in any day, they would joyously ignore me.


I worked at Roscoe for two years, settled in, began to feel the rhythms of the place. I bought myself a cast iron Dutch oven to use at home. On a hot summer day, we roasted a chicken over a fire in the old brick barbecue oven in my backyard while corn bread baked in the coals. We took out-of-town visitors to the Village. Awareness of canal town life settled into my bones.

And then one day, a call came from one of those schools who’d received my resume. I traded in my schoolmarm togs for jackets, slacks, and sensible shoes, and I picked up the threads of a career in higher ed.

I tried to get back to Roscoe at least once a year, but the time between visits lengthened, and my work intensified into a sort of middle manager’s role which sometimes claimed my evenings and weekends.

And then we moved again, and my trips to Roscoe stopped happening at all.


Until retirement dawned, and the opportunity to teach as an adjunct for COTC, and sometimes at their Coshocton campus, brought me back to Roscoe Village.

Now, as I watch my students, many of them in high school, interact with Reba at the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum, I realize that some of them hadn’t even been born during my re-enactor days; what seems like just a bit ago to me is a lifetime for them. To my students, my Roscoe stories themselves are history.

And it comes to me that the new and the now are history in the making; that the students’ visit to the Museum will become a memory, a tale they might share with grandchildren one day, when those  little people come bursting with enthusiasm to tell Grandma or Grandpa about this wonderful place the teacher took them to…

But what a treat and a privilege to work, again, in a place where the past is always present, where the brick sidewalks and the welcoming shops nod to canal-era days, and where Roscoe’s historical re-enactors still draw visitors into history’s web. What a joy to work with students who feel the pull of that history and to whom, one day, our class will be part of that remembering.

“Who was that teacher?” they might ask each other, twenty years hence, shepherding their ten-year olds down the winding sidewalk, heading for the Roscoe Village school on a fourth grade field trip. “You know, the kind of wacky one who took us to the museum?”

They’ll feel the pull of their own histories as they weave into the present of a heritage-laden town and era, and they’ll feel a deep satisfaction, too, that their children are learning about history by living it,…by visiting a place where the membrane of time supports our todays even as it grows, just for that one reaching moment, mighty thin.


“History.” Roscoe Village, 2019, https://roscoevillage.com/history.

Now That I Know Your Backstory, I Love You Even More

It was early on a frigid day, one in a long string of ‘em. The house was cleaned and polished; the walks and drive were shoveled. The afternoon stretched ahead, as untrammeled as new snow.

The boyos, who had been avoiding the face-freezing air for several days, were restless. They decided to pack up and drop off the recycling; then they would go out to lunch. They stomped up and down the basement stairs and gathered things together, sliding boxes and bins out onto the little back porch, bundling themselves into bulky jackets, pulling stocking caps down to cover their exposed and tender ears. They hugged and waved and slammed out the door, and the house settled in.

And, oh the quiet! I put the teakettle on to boil; I would infuse a pot of rich decaffeinated coffee. I lit the fire, and pulled my old fuzzy blanket from the TV watching chair. I gathered up my books and put two cookies on a plate, and I placed all that on the table next to my reading chair.

The teakettle whistled. I poured steaming water over freshly ground beans, swirled a wooden spoon to start the alchemy. I wrapped a towel around the French press, and I went and warmed myself in front of the fire while I waited.

Finally, I slowly, slowly, pushed down on the infusing filter, and then I poured rich, dark, fragrant coffee into my special Christmas mug. I wrapped my hands around it and I lowered myself slowly into the reading chair.

Books and quiet and a crackling fire. I lifted the cup and bent my nose to pull in the wonderful scent.

“You and me,” I whispered to the coffee as its warmth spread through my palms. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend this time with.”

We go back a long, long way, me and coffee. Coffee knows all about my history: how I started drinking it when I was twelve or so; how I turned to beer and cigarettes in my fast and furious college days, and coffee became the taken-for-granted reliable friend who always picked me up on the mornings after, who provided a soothing counterpoint while I puffed foolishly away.

Coffee was with me in times of midnight worry and when a baby cried in the deep of night. It prepared me for long journeys and revived me on the way.

Coffee stayed with me, even when a cold, hard doctor dropped the word, “Decaffeinated,” from his uncaring tongue.

Yes, coffee knew all about my past and my present. But, staring into its chocolate-brown depths, I realized how little I knew about coffee.

“We’ve been together 50 years now,” I murmured. “Don’t you think it’s time I learned a bit about your past?”

The brew was unforthcoming. I sipped and sighed, and I decided I’d have to do my own research. I had come to a point where I needed to know more about this old companion’s roots.

Turns out a lot of folks on the Internet were eager to spill the beans.


Long, long ago, “About Coffee” (www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/History-of-Coffee) tells me, a goatherd named Kaldi pastured his flock on a plateau in an ancient Ethiopian forest. And he noticed, Kaldi, did, that the goats would nibble on the berries of a coffee bush, and then they would be so bouncy, so energetic, that they could not settle down to sleep.

Kaldi took this revelation to a local abbot, and the holy man brewed a drink with the beans and drank it. And, oh the joy for the abbot! Now he could stay awake during evening prayer!

He shared the brew with the other monks, who hallelujahed its praises.

The bracing story of coffee, from its simple beginnings of buzzed up goats, would percolate ‘round the world.


The Arabia peninsula, the website tells me, is where the mindful growing and trading of coffee began in the fifteenth century. It started in Yemeni; it spread to Persia, Egypt, and Syria by the sixteenth century. And everyone who tried coffee, it seems,  wanted coffee.

Coffee houses sprang up in the Middle East; they became important social enclaves where essential information was exchanged, and where dynamic discussions took place. The coffee shops were known, says “About Coffee,” as schools of the wise.

And pilgrims came to Mecca, drank coffee, went home, and spread the word about it. By the 1600’s, coffee was in Europe, and a furor was taking place. The clergy in Venice didn’t like the new coffee-drinking trend; they didn’t like it one bit. (They must not have had any trouble staying awake for evening worship.)

Venetians were not inclined to listen to their pastors on this account. A controversy brewed, and the Venetian clergy decided they’d call in the big gun, someone their flock would not dare dispute. They took the question of whether coffee was wholesome and proper to Pope Clement VIIII.

The Pope asked to have some coffee brewed.

He drank it.

He loved it.

He approved it.

The Venetian clergy were vanquished; the faithful of Venice rejoiced at the holy sanction of their java.

(This makes me think, for some reason, of that sassy papal rejoinder to obvious queries, as in…

“Do you enjoy chocolate?”

“Huh. Is the Pope Catholic?”

From now on, I’m going to replace that. When a silly question is posed, I’m going to snap back, “DUH! Does the Pope drink coffee???”)

Driftawaycoffee.com tells me that coffee shops appeared in Damascus and Constantinople and Vienna in the 1500’s. The Viennese were the first to add sweeteners to their brews.

Coffee shops appeared in England in 1652, and by 1700, according to my friends at Driftawaycoffee, there were somewhere between one thousand and eight thousand coffee shops flourishing in Britain. Coffeehouses were GOOD things, say the authors; they promoted sobriety. Water was not very potable in the days before public sanitation. To avoid the germs and illness available drinking water provided, people drank beer and ale instead. That, of course, led to its own set of problems.

Coffee’s brewing process also eliminated the unsavory ingredients in drinking water. But, instead of promoting drunkenness, it promoted thought and conversation. English coffee shops became business hubs, public houses where clearheaded commerce could take place.

But what England’s coffee houses were NOT, back in the day, was female-friendly. Women were not allowed in coffee shops unless they worked there. Their “Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” says Driftawaycoffee, was “mostly tongue-in-cheek, but does provide this lively description: ‘…the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE.’”

Maybe excluding women from the coffee craze is one reason many English still prefer their tea.

On NewYorkseriouseats.com. I find a section called ‘Coffee Chronicles in America.’ This notes that the Tea Act of 1773 pushed colonials to consider coffee as a serious hot beverage contender. Before the Act, Colonists mostly used coffee for medicinal purposes; it was pricey and rare.  But by 1793, coffee beans were roasting  in New York City, and the beverage had taken hold in the USA.

According to the Coffee Chronicles, a Coffee Exchange was established in New York City in 1882, and coffee quaffers were then guaranteed a certain standard of bean. The Exchange was a response to the great coffee crash of 1881, when unscrupulous sorts tried to corner the coffee market. They were unsuccessful, and we are still the beneficiaries of healthy competition among coffee-growers, insuring all tastes are amply provided for.

Satori Tato, a Japanese-American chemist, developed instant coffee in 1901, I learn from talkaboutcoffee.com. Two years later, German coffee trader Ludwig Roselius was stuck with a batch of ruined coffee beans. Roselius decided to experiment. His staff noticed that the water that soaked and ruined the beans also leached away their caffeine. They deliberately repeated the process, coming up with Sanka. The first commercially available decaf was born.

And coffee laced itself through United States life, bolstering business discussions and card parties, becoming a morning ritual for millions of folks. When Prohibition became law in 1920, United States citizens turned to coffee (in addition to their bootleg liquor) for beverage stimulation. It heartened soldiers and fortified those they left behind. It was a staple in break rooms and private kitchens.

Starbucks placed the coffee shop in the mainstream of United States society in the 1970’s; its own shops, and responses to them, proliferated.

The coffeeguide.org tells me that decaf coffee, my brew of choice, has had its challenges. It’s been embraced; it’s been rejected. A quick internet search offers a cacophony of competing decaf views. I read about health benefits and I read about the dangers of decaf. I read that decaf coffee still contains caffeine. I read about different processes, some of which are healthier than others, the writers report.

I think about the 60-point drop in my blood pressure, and I think about my ability to have a steaming cup of joe every morning, and I stop reading.


I write this on another cold morning, and as I write, I steadily drink my morning pot of medium roast decaf. And I realize there’s an awful lot to learn about my old friend, Coffee; my Internet ramble has not even scratched the surface of its depths. I remember, for instance, learning that coffee was used to treat hyperactive children in the 1970’s, before other drugs were identified; I remember reading that coffee may be one effective tool in individual arsenals that help people deal with depression.

I remember reading that agricultural coffee workers are victimized. Does coffee production harm the environment? There are sustainable, organic, free trade products I can buy. And there is much I still don’t know about my lifelong companion.

But my relationship with coffee emerges from my brisk study undamaged. We are still tight, coffee and me; we still share our mornings, our social times, our after-dinner dessert moments. I know that I’m not the only one; coffee has helped millions of people over hundreds of years enjoy and savor, and stay awake for, life. I can live with that. I can share.

Knowing coffee’s history just makes me love it more.





A Fresh, Hot Batch of History

Oh, it’s a changeable day…clouds scud across an early moon as it edges out the pale setting sun. Dry leaves skitter across the street, and children, in puffy quilted jackets that belie their terrifying masks or princess-y tiaras, trick or treat. One burly little football player is made even bulkier by the fact that his snowsuit is UNDER his uniform. His mama, wrapped up in a thick woven blanket, grins as she escorts the boy from door to door.

Mark is doing candy duty on this cold, October-fleeing night, braving the insistent wind and foot-fending the little dog who desperately wants to bark the costumed visitors away, away, away from her door. And I—I am in the kitchen, baking cookies.


I opened the cookie jar after lunch to find just two chocolate chip cookies.

“Cookie?” asked Mark, my hard-working husband, wistfully, and I handed them over. I washed out the jar, setting it upside down on the cast-iron stove spiders to dry. And then Mark went back to work and James and I drove to the library in Westerville.

The knowledge of that empty cookie jar went with me, a subtle but insistent prod. We have a history, cookies and me, and somewhere along the line, I signed the pledge,– the one that says an empty cookie jar will always, and soon, be filled.


My mother, a stay-at-home mom most of the time, kept her cookie jar full. We seldom had things like soda pop, potato chips, or ice cream novelties in the house, but we always had something baked. My friends all knew where the cookie jar lived; they all loved my mother’s baking.

I bemoaned the fact that her chocolate chip cookies doubled the batter and halved the chips.

“You don’t NEED that many chips,” she’d reiterate, good Depression kid that she was, frugal nerves twitching. But I DID–I did need my chocolate chip cookies to be lumpy, crunchy clusters of morselly delight.

My friends didn’t care. They poured tall glasses from the opened gallon of skim milk in the refrigerator, sat at my kitchen table, and munched.

“These are GOOD,” they mumbled, spitting crumbs, and they looked at me like I was crazy to complain.

I sighed. I was happier when the cookies were ginger snaps, or peanut butter drops pressed flat and crunchy with the sugared tines of a fork. I liked the oatmeal cookie recipe I was pretty sure crossed the ocean with Mom’s family from Scotland, and when Mom added Snickerdoodles to the everyday cookie pantheon, I fell in love with those too. She made chocolate sugar jumbles and frosted them with white frosting. She made molasses cream cookies and tinted the icing pink or green.

Dad liked weird cookies–like Italian fig bars, which Mom made only at Christmas. The recipe, though, made a thousand or so cookies, and they would haunt the kitchen in their tupperware for a month. Dad contended they improved with age, and he would take a bundle in his lunch, every day, until they disappeared.

He also liked minced meat cookies, which looked a lot like chocolate chip cookies, but one quick read of the ingredients on the minced meat can swayed me firmly onto the side of ‘No, thank you.’

“Try one,” Dad would say; “they’re really tasty!”

I would make an awful face and back away.

“Aw,” he’d mutter, “you kids don’t know what’s good.”

I can live with my ignorance, thank you, I thought but did not say.

Christmas and Easter brought cut-out cookies, made with a short bread recipe that was family-bound, too. Those were glazed and dusted with colored sugar. Just getting the cookie cutters out, pulling them from the top cabinet where they resided in a battered old tin, was  excitement.

Cookies were part of the everyday fabric, and part of the special times fabric, too.


Family photos:

My cousin Barbara shows me a picture of our grandmother Wilhelmina, my mother’s mother, in her wedding gown. She has a Gibson girl hairdo–glossy, thick hair piled high above her open, pretty face. Her elegant dress is beaded, buttoned, high-necked, long sleeved. She smiles tentatively. She is beautiful, this woman that we never knew.

Barbara tells me she has spoken with someone–an aging family member, or an old, old friend of the family, I don’t remember who–who told her that “Minnie” was ever smiling, welcoming, hospitable. She always had cookies in the jar for kids and for company, this person said.

My brother Sean sends a photo in the mail one day. Wait until you see it, he messages. When the manila envelope arrives, I carefully lift open the flap and pull out  a glossy black and white picture of my mother, tiny, scowling deeply, being held in her brother Jim’s arms. Next to them is Annie, Barbara’s mother, in a cloche hat, her arms full of flowers. Annie and Jim, young teenagers, look tired and desperate. In front of them are mounds and mounds of flowers.

They are standing at their mother’s freshly dug grave.


There were always baked goods when we visited Aunt Annie, a special trip that only happened once a year, if that. There were always cookies in my mother’s kitchen. For two grown girls, bereft too early of a beloved mother, maybe that was a way of maintaining connection, of keeping the faith.

A cookie jar that’s always full means someone really cares.


Cookies: background to my personal history. But cookies are an essential part of our larger culture, too, I think. We use cookie language. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” we say, philosophically, when things go wrong. Or, “She’s a smart cookie!” we say admiringly, when she figures out a clever, savvy way to navigate a tricky passage.

We sing, along with a fuzzy monster, “C is for Cookie! That’s good enough for me!” We sing about animal crackers in our soup.

On Facebook, I see a meme: “If a redhead loses her temper,” it reads, “do we say Ginger snaps?”

When Bill Clinton ran against the original President Bush, there were hard issues on the table, but chocolate chip cookies caught the attention of United States voters. Whose recipe was better–Barbara Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s? The amount of press and attention that got was a measure of how deeply we value our cookies.

So where, I wonder now, did cookies come from?

Cookies have been around a LONG time, I find on whatscookingamerica. net–gosh, since at least the seventh century AD. Scholars posit that the first cookies were ‘test cakes’ in a time of uncertain oven temps. Conscientious bakers would whip up a batch of cake dough; to make sure the oven was hot enough, they would bake up a little portion to see how well or how quickly it cooked. I imagine a jolly, roly-poly royal baker indulging in a hot little cake fresh from a flaming oven, bouncing the toasty treat  on his tender fingers. “Oh, yeah!” he’s thinking. “That oven’s hot enough. And damn, I make a good cake batter…”

Persia, I learn, was one of the first countries to cultivate sugar, and, as a result, cookie-style cakes. By the 1400’s, Europe had embraced the use of sugar and little cake-baking. A Parisian shopper in that era could purchase sweet, filled wafers on the busy city streets. Renaissance cookbooks offered an abundance of cookie recipes, What’s Cooking America (whatscookingamerica.com) tells me, and, in 1596, a cookbook called Goode Huswife’s Jewel contained directions for square shortbread cookies enriched with egg yolks.

Settlers brought their cookie traditions to United States ovens,–cookies called things like tea cakes, jumbles, plunkets, or cry babies. And the railroad made exotic ingredients available–coconut, pineapple, and oranges, for example–and broadened the boundaries of Cookiedom.

Mr. Kellogg invented the corn flake in the early 1900’s, and shortly after that, his company proposed the concept of adding cereal to cookies. (Tiger Cookies, with crushed up frosted corn flakes and swirls of melted chocolate, are a family favorite here. The random addition of the forlorn leftovers at the bottom of the cereal box to any old cookie recipe is highly frowned upon, however.)

Refrigerators hit the big time in the 1930’s, and icebox cookie recipes did, too.

And maybe the best known morsel of cookie history is the story of the Tollhouse cookie–how Ruth Wakefield, at the Tollhouse restaurant, ran out of nuts one day. She decided to chop up a chocolate bar and add that to her “Butter Drop-Do” cookie dough (www.culinarylore.com). Patrons went crazy for the cookie; by 1939, Nestle was marketing Tollhouse chocolate chips to accommodate the craze.

I go searching for the story behind Snickerdoodles, the deliberately NON-chocolate cookie that fills our cookie jars this indulgent Hallowe’en season; their story is nowhere near as crisply outlined as the Tollhouse cookie’s tale. Grit.com tells me the  recipe might have come to the States from Germany or Holland, or it might have come from a creative, whimsical New England cook’s kitchen. The name may be an Americanization of ‘Schneckennudelin,” which means, ‘snail dumpling.’ (Eeeuw.) Or–the cookies might have been named for an early 1900’s hero called Snickerdoodle. (But then, he might have been named for the cookie.)

An American Food Historian (americanfoodhistorian.blogspot.com) reports that the earliest mention of Snickerdoodles in print might be from page 8 of the June 14, 1898, Boston Globe. So of course, she notes, the cookies had to exist before then.

Like most of our history, it seems, Snickerdoodles were created in the quiet, with deliberation, maybe, but not much fanfare, and then their popularity spread, until the little cookie became ubiquitous. Most people, these days, if you whisper ‘Snickerdoodle’ in their ears, will immediately think, Cinnamon. Chewy. Yummy.


It’s the morning of November 2 as I finish typing this ramble; I sit at my dining room table in the just-dawning day. My son and I have a breakfast plan this morning: we will dine at the classic Denny’s out on Airport Road. Last night Jim read me a long litany of hot cake possibilities, including pecan sticky bun and red velvet variations. A purist, I will probably order something more traditional than those glorious concoctions.

But it will be an hour or two before James shakes off the night’s sleep and we pile into the Hyundai to search out sustenance. I sip my fragrant cup of fake coffee and realize I am little bit peckish. I grab two Snickerdoodles from the big plaid cookie jar. We like our cookies crisp, not soft; we like the edges nicely browned. These two, stolen from the top of the pile, are just perfect.

I place the cookies on my napkin, and yield to the importunings of the anxious little dog, who wants her Second Walkies now. We slip off into the dawning day, gray and wet, and she sniffs and considers for fifteen minutes or so. My silly slide-on shoes soak up the morning rain.

I am not concerned. My pay off waits–that steaming coffee, those two crunchable, spicy cookies. Let the winds blow, and the rains come. My shoes will dry. We’ll light a fire in the fireplace, snuggle up with fuzzy blankets.

In an uncertain world, symbols of security are precious. Today, we feel fortified and fortunate. We have our reserves. There are cookies in the cookie jar. We’ll weather the storm all right.

Stemmed, but Branching

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.
        —Michael Crichton

“Did you know,” asked my brother Sean, “that our great-grandfather died in a poor house?”

Sean had been to visit our uncle, Joe, our father’s much-younger brother, and Uncle Joe had been sharing family history facts that maybe weren’t so well-known. Some were about endearing personality quirks. But—a poor house? That was a little more serious. That smacked of Dickens and gray Gothic grimness. Our great-grandfather had living children, after all–our grandfather among them. How, in his final years, did he wind up in an institution for people who had hit rock-bottom, who had absolutely nowhere else to go?

Then I thought I remembered that the county home–the ‘old folks home’–in the county where Sean and I grew up had once been the poor house. It struck me that maybe the poor house had once been the place where the elderly were sent when their families could not care for them. Behind this ruminating is a hope that maybe things were not so bad there.

This week, I’m going to learn as much as I can about poor houses in western New York State in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It seems like something I need to understand. Because the fact of our great-grandfather’s institutionalization has some sort of impact on all of us. Having consigned his father to an institution, for instance, it may have been easier for our grandfather to place his own children in orphanages when their mother died.

My father’s years in Father Baker’s Home for Children surely shaped the man he became. We could see it, for example, in the melancholy that descended before the holidays,–a kind of yearning for something long denied. The reality of Christmas always seemed, ultimately, to chase away the sadness, but at that time of year, my mother would warn us not to push our father.

“It’s hard for him,” she would say. “He has an image of an unattainable perfect holiday in his head.”

It’s funny. When the December holidays approach, I always get a whiff of that as we prepare for Christmas–of the idea that other people are enjoying a perfect, harmonious, color-swirled, music-filled extravaganza. That my poor family is getting, somehow, a shorter stick than the others drawing in this competition. And then it dissipates in the brisk breeze of intrigue and baking and shopping and get-togethers with friends and family.

I wonder how my child-father felt about his grandpa being in the poor house. Was there shame and sadness; were those feelings renewed when he crossed through the orphanage gates to become a resident? Or was there relief in knowing there was safety, there was a warm bed and food on the table, and the wolf, for a while, was at bay?

My father is long gone–gone thirty years ago–and it is too late to ask him those questions. But it’s not too late to feel the impact of his thoughts and emotions–to be touched by the actions of others in generations before me.


We were a little full of ourselves when Mark completed the law school years and we struck out into a brand new town, into brand new territory.

“Look at us! Aren’t we daring?”

It was a wonderful time, full of growth and revelation, the forging of new relationships, the refining of beliefs and values. We evolved, because necessity demanded it, new definitions of home and the meaning of work in our lives, of family and of friendship, of where and how we fit into a community, and of what we owed the place that stretched and morphed to let us in.

We felt sometimes, I think, like we had invented the concept of the daring move to a brand new place.

And then one day it occurred to me that my parents had done much the same thing. And that our grandparents had been much, much bolder. Imagine Mark’s grandparents leaving Italy as young people in their late teens, striking out for a country where they didn’t even speak the lingua franca. Imagine my mother’s folks pulling up roots in Scotland, packing up babies and the few family heirlooms they could stuff into the limited luggage they could bring, and boarding a ship to an unknown city.

Maybe bold moves were part of our heritage, and maybe our move was much safer and far less thrilling than those of the people who’d that had gone before.

It was a humbling realization. Along with it came this: I might understand myself better if I understood my history better.


We hired some wonderful folks to paint our house this summer; yesterday, they put up the last shutter, and we all went out front, painters and inhabitants, and snapped cell phone photos. The transformation was striking.

Our neighbor Sandy has lived in her house for 16 years; it’s the first time, she says, the little house has been painted during that time.

Sixteen years ago, we wouldn’t have called Young Ministers Painting; sixteen years ago, we would have painted the house ourselves. Time and knees and energy have changed that situation.

But we did commit to painting the garage, the car port and the long fence that borders our backyard. And as we plunge into those jobs, we are learning something about the place in which we live and its history.

“Look at this,” Mark will say. “Why did they do it like this?” And he’ll get out a legal pad, sketch a new plan, because the way of hanging the door, or the way the wires are run, suits a need long-filled and gone. But pondering that need tells us something about the family who lived here before us. We consider whether the little garage was kind of a potting shed for the couple who lived here for many, many years; they  were, neighbors and friends tell us, great gardeners. He grew the blooms; she arranged them creatively; they marched away with high honors from the county fair each year.

Knowing that, we look at the way the garage functions and think maybe we understand a little bit.

And standing at the garage wall and scraping is a literal act of peeling back the years. The garage was many colors before it reached sage green. It was creamy white and brick-red. It was never, as far as these layers tell us, Seriously Gray, which it’s becoming now. This color choice is new to us, new to the house, a new chapter in neighborhood history.

Acknowledging that we’ll never reach their level of horticultural excellence frees us to re-imagine the garage as a space for something else, and Mark builds shelves and re-wires the electric and moves his chop saw into the space.


There was a rectangular hole in the dining room floor right under where the table would practically go that puzzled us when we moved in. We pointed it out to our friend Susan.

She said, “That’s probably where the button to call the maid was.”

The maid! Mark and I looked at each other; this was a revelation about the family who’d lived here before us, and about the times they had lived in. Mark cut a piece of plywood and filled the void. We laid down an area rug and answer only each other’s summons for kitchen fare.

Knowing a little of the house’s history informs us; we understand, then, how and why things are configured. I honor those former habits. At that same time, knowing those practices are gone frees us to change the flow, to make the place our own.


My understanding of local history is hazy but growing clearer. This city was once two towns. The Civil War highlighted their differences.

In what was once Putnam, fiery abolitionists brought blazing orators to town, smuggled escaped slaves from hidey-holes to furtive river launches, defied their more conservative neighbors who gathered with torches and outcry. This side of the river, folks recall, was populated by people with different politics, people who upheld the status quo.

New research reveals that some of those folks were working behind a facade; Underground Railroad operatives did not hang ‘welcome’ signs by their front gate or leave diaries about their illicit and illegal acts of daring and kindness.

Devastating flood waters surged over both areas in the early 1900’s, and city planners with foresight and good communication limited loss of life and property–people knew, for instance, to turn off their kerosene lamps as the waters filled their living spaces. In that crisis, the two disparate parts of the city worked together. Those waters, some say, may have washed away some of the invisible walls separating people from the two areas.

But the long-ago distinctions between the two areas, now parts of one unified city, still have some impact; one can still see hazy outlines of those borders in the way some things are done.

It helps to delve into the history of your town.

The alchemy of realizing the history of family, home, and place works, I suspect, kind of magic.

Maybe it’s time of life; maybe it’s the fact of retirement and the flexibility to explore the unexplained puzzles of family life. Maybe it’s the transformation of the house, the change of the seasons, the surfacing of information. Probably it’s a confluence of all of these things.

But I am struck, more and more, by the need to embrace the present–to live fully and mindfully in this moment. There’s an imperative need, I think, regarding my son, 27 years old and disabled, to plan carefully for the future.

But there is a need, too, to understand the past, to come to grips with the forces and the wisdom and the ignorance, the faults and the talents, the mistakes and the triumphs, and the mundane habits of everyday life,–my own and those of people before me–that have brought me to where I am.

So this week, I will contribute in a small way to a community forum, with a wonderful, well-known speaker, on drug addiction and recovery–a present day plague whose roots we certainly need to understand. I’ll work on grants, and try to finalize reports for some community activities; I’ll get ready for meetings and take the boyo to get leeched at the hospital lab.  I will bake lemon bars and I will shop for a pair of decent shoes, and I will follow a deep-seated, genetically imparted schedule, and change beds on Friday, mop floors on Saturday, cook up a fine family dinner on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll scrape the garage and help Mark paint.

And in the nooks and the crannies, I’ll explore. I have some local history research to do for a project in October–I need to track down some area lore and contemplate the impact on a forgotten local star who fascinates me. It will broaden my hazy understanding of local history–maybe opening some doors.

And I need to find out: What were poor houses back in the day? Were they the joyless, soul-sucking concrete asylums my imagination suggests, or was there comfort there? Why would a grown child consign an aging parent to such a place? I need a more complete understanding to assimilate the idea of my great-grandfather ending his days in that kind of a setting.

I want to know. I don’t want to be a leaf separated from its tree. I want to gain the whole picture, to understand the currents that swirled before and the eddies I navigate now.

And I want to be able to determine, at least in small part, which way the future will flow.

A Slippery Grasp on History

We were in Buffalo, New York;  we had a little extra time after our last museum exploration–after standing in the room where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, hearing the sonorous, recorded voices of re-enactors creating the scene for us–and before we were due at the Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub for dinner.

“Hey,” I said, “I wonder where Perkins Place is.”

I pulled it up on my cell phone. The house–29 Perkins Street–was only six minutes away. I hit ‘go’ on the directions tab, and Siri took over. Mark followed her instructions, and suddenly we were there, stopped on a skinny, cluttered street, avoiding the eyes of gaunt and angry-looking people who stood in their front yards, arms crossed, and stared at our idling car.

It was a small house next to its neighbors, with a kind of faded taupe siding. The windows were boarded with wood gone gray. The aging plywood over the door sported a garish, spray-painted, red ’29.’ The tiny front yard was littered with cigarette butts and bunched-up papers and shards of plastic grocery bags.

We sat in silence for a minute, and then Jim took his ear buds out and asked, “What is this place?”

“This,” I said, “is where my mother lived when she met my father.”

“Yikes,” said Jim, and he put the buds back in his ears and looked away.


“The first time I met your mother,” my father often said, “she was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor.”

He was working then,–at a dockyard, I think,–with a couple of Scottish boys named Innes. And one night they brought him home to the house they shared with their siblings. And there my father met my mother, who was indeed, she would always agree when the story was told, washing the kitchen floor.

He was in his early twenties; she was right out of high school. It must have been just about 1940. They had both lost one parent to death and the other to one kind or another of abandonment. They were each one of seven siblings, although my father knew his seven half-siblings, too. My mother’s father had disappeared, and she wouldn’t realize she had half-siblings herself until after his death, twenty-five years later.

The details of what happened after that first introduction are sketchy. Was it love at first sight? Was there wooing and pursuit? Did one shy away while the other knew–just knew, bone-deep,–that this, THIS one, was the partner for a lifetime?

Whatever, however, the die was cast in that moment of meeting, and a love, a partnership, a bond was forged–one that would shudder from, but survive, war and separation and unimaginable loss. I trace my history back to that moment.

And the sadness of that blank-eyed, neglected little home tumbled that history toward me.


“I feel,” said a new colleague not so very long ago, “as if this was meant to be.” She had stumbled on just the right opportunity at just the right time, she said, applied, breezed through the interviews. She’d gotten a job doing exactly what she hoped to be doing at this point in her professional life.

“I believe that,” said someone else. “I believe things happen when they’re meant to happen, that someone is watching out for us.” People around the table nodded solemnly.

I smiled and kept quiet.  I am not so sure fate is quite that settled. What becomes history has so many variables. The storm clouds could have lingered, the game been postponed, and then the home run–well, it might never have happened.

Maybe that stupendous success was a simple matter of placement in line, or of what big-shot the family happened to know.

What might have happened if, say, they’d decided to take the long way ’round instead on that memorable day?

What if, what if, what if.

What if Dad hadn’t gone home with those particular buddies–if he had gone instead to another friend’s house, met another friend’s family? What if he’d gone to a bar that night, had one too many, gotten into a fight? Would the moment of meeting have just been postponed, the introduction taken place at another, later day, and the forging of that partnership begun as it was meant to, just a little further down the line?

Or could life have been completely different?

History is slippery, I think, not iron-cast.


The story teller at the Theodore Roosevelt memorial site told us that Teddy had been very concerned for the widowed first lady. President McKinley had died of gunshot wounds inflicted by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo. (And what if Czolgosz had never gotten close enough? What if someone bumped him in line and felt his gun, or what if his trolley had been late?) McKinley was laid in state in another Buffalo mansion, and government officials hurried to find Teddy, who was staying with his friends, the Wilcoxes.

Those  officials wanted him to come back to the house where McKinley lay and be inaugurated immediately, but Teddy said no. First, he said, he would go and pay his respects to the slain President, and to Mrs. McKinley.

Then he would come back and be sworn in as president at the Wilcox mansion. He did not want to deflect from the solemn vigil at the other house with an inauguration.

So they did it Teddy’s way: respectful, solemn, considerate of a widow’s feelings and the concerns of a nation.

But it didn’t have to happen like that. I think of photos of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on a plane, Jackie Kennedy propped beside him, glazed and grieving in her blood-spattered suit. Johnson insisted on that in-flight inauguration, they say, on having the slain Kennedy’s widow by his side, and he wouldn’t wait for a different venue.

If he had insisted from the beginning on respecting Mrs. Kennedy’s grief would Johnson’s presidency have started–and continued–entirely differently? Or would it have been the act of a different man to defer to a widow’s public, aching sorrow?

Whatever. Both TR and Johnson, I think, were controversial, but one was also wildly popular, and the other widely vilified.

There were many other variables in their presidencies, of course, but so much history, so much understanding, pivots on a choice. And choices, once made, cannot be undone.


It could always have been different. What if someone hadn’t forgotten to set the alarm, if the weather had changed, if a person had acted altruistically instead of selfishly? There is a literature built on this, on what life might have been like, say, if the South had won the Civil War, if Kennedy had not died. If the kick had been good. If the verdict had been different.

When things work out just perfectly,–when we get the job, meet the man by happenstance, pick up the lottery ticket at just the right time and place,–we feel, sometimes, as if we were chosen by fate, singled out for blessing: beneficiaries of what was meant to be.

And then what-ifs are the stuff from which we weave regrets. If only I’d kept my mouth shut! If only I’d stayed home that night! If only I realized how sick he really was…

Maybe then it is easiest for me to believe that history has a meant-to-be trajectory, that things were rolling along–lumbering along–propelled by the heavy weight of all the things that came before, heading exactly to where they had to go. No course deviations possible. Or that events were guided by the hand of a higher power, making my choices and mistakes, or the choices and mistakes of those much more powerful and meaningful than I, irrelevant or inevitable.

This moment, though, will be history one day. And I have my choices right now.


My younger brother Sean, who works in Buffalo now, had texted me a picture of 29 Perkins Place, so I knew what it had to look like. The reality was somehow, though, different from the knowing.

How could the little house look so sad, so neglected? Didn’t people know that an important little bit of history happened here?

What did I want?

Maybe a plaque by the door that reads, “Here, on an ordinary workday in 1940, James met Jean, insuring that, one day, Sharon, Dennis, Michael, John, Pamela, and Sean  would come to be…”

Maybe for the house to be a cherished cottage with curtains at the windows, a freshly painted front door, children playing, a neatly mowed yard.

But that house, that neighborhood, has its own history. There are no do-overs, history-wise. (Think of the literature on that theme–de Maupassant, Stephen King, The Butterfly Effect… We firmly believe, it seems, that going in time back to undo the bad creates horrible repercussions, and that history is not a thing to be messed about.) The shuttered windows do not detract from the truth: an event happened once, in that sad and shabby house, that made my being possible.

Maybe it could have been different, the moment skewed differently, and the whole existence of myself and my siblings thrown into jeopardy.

Maybe that moment of meeting was graven in time, meant to be, written by a celestial hand.

Chance or fate–the what-ifs behind the history–do not matter. Unchangeable, events have brought me to this now, this time when my choices are important, when my actions can be done or left undone, when a word can be swallowed or spoken. In the messy, mutable now, we may be encountering things that are fated, but we still have the choice of how we’ll react. And how, then, we’ll shape history.


It fascinates–the chance, the happenstance, the slipperiness of history. What if, what if, what if…

But if I dive too deeply down that rabbit hole, I just may detract from now. I’ll deal with the effects,–wonderful, tragic, and all shades in between,–with which my history pummels me. And I’ll pray, and work, and angle for the mindfulness to fully live my now.